Played by Robert Goodale with a shrewdly observed combination of apparent generosity and concealed conceit, fictional theatremaker Anthony Nicholl reckons he’s dug deep enough into the human experience to find a universal language. In Graham Eatough’s excellent How To Act, presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, he describes how his journeys with a theatre troupe into the remote corners of Nigeria helped him learn to communicate in a place where there is no common tongue.
He comes to this workshop, in other words, claiming to have the holy grail of actor-audience engagement, a magical key letting a performer unlock the door to a profound relationship with the spectator.
It would be easy to fall for this white man’s brand of mysticism and exoticism, to imagine that the tribal drums and traditional dances he came across brought him closer to some elemental human condition. Even Jade Ogugua as workshop participant Promise, superbly capturing the giggly nervousness of a student asked to step out of her comfort zone, gives the impression of being dazzled by Nicholl’s wisdom. She gamely goes along with his improvisation exercises and his pretentious insistence on treating the stage as a sacred space.
Except she’s not dazzled in the slightest. In a clever twist of Eatough’s script, this black woman of Nigerian descent turns the tables on Nicholl and shows him to be a colonialist with a liberal face. Just like the global oil companies that have pillaged the country for its natural resources, leaving behind a trail of pollution and poverty, he has robbed Nigeria of its artistic riches, taking his pick of the culture – and, it transpires, the people – from his position of privilege and power. The play’s title ceases to be about how to act in the theatre and becomes about how to act in the world.
Crucially, Promise demonstrates that the supposed universality of the tale Nicholl tells is nothing of the kind. For all his lip service to the values of inclusiveness and internationalism, Nicholl is the one setting the agenda, Nicholl who defines the terms. Like anyone, he is shaped by his cultural upbringing and, being so close to the seat of power, he is especially unconscious of the attitudes he is governed by. Every time he tells Promise what she must be feeling, she squirms in inarticulate rebellion. When he claims to have found a universal story, it’s only because he’s too blinkered to imagine another point of view.
Dr Nina Burrowes made a similar point about privilege in one of the post-show discussions after Gary McNair’s Locker Room Talk, a candid exposure of the way many men talk about women in private. The psychologist argued that those in the majority never have cause to reflect on the thing that distinguishes them from the minority. She, for example, is never called upon to say what it means to have white skin, unlike a woman of colour who would have plenty to say on the subject. For as long as your dominant perspective goes unchallenged, it’s easy to assume a universality of experience – whether it be on the matter of race, gender, sexuality, class or nationality.And it seems all over the Fringe this year, playwrights have been eager to foreground those non-dominant perspectives, whether it’s in first-person tales of transgender actors, feminist deconstructions of man-made forms or black-lives-matter dramas about the legacy of colonial repression.
Notable, too, is the amount of theatre from Scotland dealing with these same questions of whose voice is heard and whose story is valued. One of the most incendiary is Woke by Edinburgh’s Apphia Campbell, a simply staged and passionately felt solo show that juxtaposes the story of Assata Shakur, a member of the civil rights Black Panther movement of the 1960s and 70s, and the events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after a white police officer’s fatal shooting of the black 18-year-old, Michael Brown.
In the role of Candice, a modern-day student, Campbell looks to the minor-key example of Bessie Smith’s St Louis Blues with its push-pull combination of resignation and resolve. This character is politically conservative and inclined to observe the rule of law. But when she considers the revolutionary response of the Black Panther movement to white racism and sees how little has changed in the intervening decades, now citizens are effectively being criminalised for being black, it’s hard for her to look passively on. Impassioned, articulate and angry, Woke is a theatrical embodiment of the black-lives-matter campaign.
Less overtly political, but significantly putting a Scottish-Asian voice on stage is Jaimini Jethwa’s The Last Queen Of Scotland, a semi-autobiographical memoir about a woman from Dundee returning to Uganda, the country that expelled her as a child. Engagingly written and strongly acted by Rehanna MacDonald joined by musician Patricia Panther in the Stella Quines production, it’s more lyrical than dramatic, but raises important questions about cultural identity and the voice of Scotland we most commonly get to hear.
More cultural collisions in Matthew Zajac’s The Sky Is Safe about a Scottish businessman and a Syrian refugee meeting in Istanbul and playing a cat-and-mouse game of seduction that keeps us guessing about who is cat and who is mouse. Dynamically acted by Zajac and Dana Hajaj in Ben Harrison’s good-looking production for Dogstar, it gives voice to women displaced by war in the Middle East, while implicating the West in making those wars economically possible in the first place – although the play feels truncated and fails to fulfil the promise of a strong start.
Douglas Maxwell’s The Whip Hand ambitiously brings the legacy of the slave trade into a middle-class Glasgow living room. If we owe today’s wealth to the exploitation of fellow human beings in the past, the playwright seems to ask, shouldn’t we feel morally obliged to make reparations? The early part of the play sustains itself by Maxwell’s sharp wit and character comedy, but its transition into more serious territory is uneasy, even if it does find its feet again in the closing moments of Tessa Walker’s sitcom-like production.
Finally a quick mention of Real Magic, one of the closing theatre offerings in the Edinburgh International Festival and a show that deliberately stretches the audience’s patience as it loops endlessly round the same inane game-show routine. Staged by Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall with fine-tuned attention to the minor variations of each repetition, Tim Etchells’s production for Forced Entertainment is funny and frustrating, desperate and delirious. After an EIF line-up held together with no obvious thread, it’s as offbeat a way as any to bring an eclectic season to a close.
How To Act, Summerhall, ends today; Locker Room Talk, Traverse, run ended; Woke, Gilded Balloon, until Monday; The Last Queen of Scotland, Underbelly Cowgate, run ended; The Sky Is Safe, Summerhall, ends today; The Whip Hand, Traverse, ends today; Real Magic, the Studio, ends today